By Michael Savage
Independent Published: 03 January 2008
Why are we asking this now?
Because the outspoken chief constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, has reignited the debate over the legalisation of drugs by saying that Ecstasy, used mainly in clubs and at raves, is "far safer than aspirin". He also said that the legalisation of all drugs was inevitable and only a decade away. His comments drew criticism from MPs, anti-drugs pressure groups and relatives of people whose deaths have been related to the use of Ecstasy. Some have called on him to resign.
Others involved in the drugs debate found his comments frustrating. Martin Barnes, chief executive of the independent drug information and expertise centre DrugScope, said: "On an issue as complex and emotive as drug policy, it's a shame that unhelpful soundbites from people in authority cause a publicity storm, rather than opening up a calm, informed debate."
What exactly did he say about Ecstasy?
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "There's a lot of scaremongering and rumour-mongering around Ecstasy in particular. It isn't borne out by the evidence."
He added: "Ecstasy is a remarkably safe substance – it's far safer than aspirin. If you look at the Government's own research into deaths you'll find that Ecstasy, by comparison to many other substances – legal and illegal – it is comparably a safe substance."
It is not the first time Mr Brunstrom has hit the headlines, as he is a long-time campaigner for the legalisation of drugs. He said that the evidence was "very clear" that prohibition was not and could not work, adding that "an enforcement-led strategy is making things worse, not better".
Who else supports legalisation?
Mr Brunstrom admitted that he was "certainly out of step" with most other senior police officers, but said that there were others among the upper ranks of the police service who agreed with his support for an end to prohibition. There are also senior politicians in all three major political parties who are privately sympathetic to the legalisation of drugs, but the issue is too sensitive with the electorate for them to call for any change in the drugs laws publicly.
The lobby group Transform is in support of the legalisation of Ecstasy, along with all other drugs. It says it would save the country billions of pounds on drug-related crime, make drugs safer through proper regulation, and stop money from being diverted into the hands of criminal gangs.
What is Ecstasy?
Ecstasy is usually taken in the form of a pill, but is increasingly taken in other forms such as a powder or crystals. It gives users a "rush" of energy, which is why it is mainly used by clubbers. It also makes sounds and colours more intense, and often produces intense feelings of love and friendship between those who take it. Its active ingredient is Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), although the amount of MDMA in each pill varies greatly. Users describe it as being like a combination of taking amphetamines and a weak kind of hallucinogen, such as LSD.
So is Ecstasy really dangerous?
The exact number of deaths brought about by Ecstasy use is hard to pin down, as it depends how the figure is measured. According to the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths, compiled from looking at coroners' reports from around the UK, there were 42 deaths related to Ecstasy-type drugs in 2006. Most of those involved the taking of Ecstasy in combination with other drugs, though. Only 16 deaths came after the use of an Ecstasy-type drug alone. And even within that figure, very few deaths have ever been caused by direct poisoning from the drug. Most come from other related effects, most commonly overheating and dehydrating in a hot club. Some cases – such as the high-profile death of Leah Betts in 1995 – involved consuming fatal quantities of fluid after taking Ecstasy. Supporters of legalisation argue that such deaths could be avoided with health warnings that would accompany proper regulation.
Though attention has been focused on Ecstasy-related deaths, it may also cause non-fatal damage to the brain, though the evidence is so far inconclusive. The drug's effect on the heart means that anyone with a heart condition, blood-pressure problems, epilepsy or asthma can have dangerous reactions to it. And it does create some unpleasant but less serious symptoms, such as nausea, a dry mouth and sweating.
How many people use it?
Ecstasy is mainly used by clubbers to keep them dancing all night. Its use was strongest at the height of the rave culture in the early 1990s, but has since fallen. The most up-to-date government figures, compiled in 2004, found that 4.8 per cent of 10 to 25-year-olds surveyed had taken Ecstasy, while the figure for people between 18 and 25 was nine per cent.
What does the law say about Ecstasy?
Ecstasy is currently ranked as a Class A drug, along with the likes of cocaine and heroin. It is therefore illegal to have, give away or sell. Possession of Ecstasy carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years. Supplying the drug can result in an unlimited fine and even life imprisonment.
Is legalisation really on the cards?
One group that thinks so is Transform. Its director, Danny Kushlick, said: "The reason that people call Ecstasy "pills" is because we have no idea what goes into them. If prohibition was brought to an end, we could see the introduction of proper ingredients lists, health warnings and quality control." He added: "Legalisation could be 10 years away. But what we need first is for the supporters of such a policy to speak out. They are just not prepared to do that at the moment."
In reality, though, there is very little political will for a total legalisation of drugs. Since coming to power, Gordon Brown has hinted at strengthening current drug laws, rather than repealing them. Perhaps more likely is the reclassification of Ecstasy under the Misuse of Drugs Act. The Government's commitment to "evidence-based" drug laws suggests that the laws should be updated periodically. Back in 2003, a group of MPs dabbled with the idea of downgrading Ecstasy from a Class A drug to a Class B drug, alongside other amphetamines such as speed. But the idea was dismissed by ministers.
The possibility of a reclassification of Ecstasy has re-emerged recently. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which advises the government on drug policy, will review the evidence regarding the effects of Ecstasy, and will then make a recommendation over the classification of the drug some time this year.
Should ecstasy be legalised by the Government?
* In reality, very few deaths are caused by ecstasy, and legalising it would allow proper quality control
* Money would stop being channelled to the criminal gangs which are involved in supplying drugs across Britain
* The policy of enforcement and criminalising users has shown little sign of working
* Ecstasy could be responsible for causing brain damage. If we don't know all the facts, we should err on the side of caution
* People do die each year after taking ecstasy, though the degree to which the drug is directly responsible is disputed
* There is very little demand for the legalisation of ecstasy among the public or politicians. Reclassification is more realistic